Midland Prepared for Potential Oil Spill Events
Earlier this summer in Odessa, Texas a freight train hauling hydraulic fracturing sand slid off the tracks and ten train cars fell sideways. They remain spilled on the tracks, awaiting cleanup. Recently when Dale Little, Midland County Fire Marshal, saw them he wondered what would have happened if the train had been carrying oil or chemicals instead of just sand.
Midland, Texas sees freight trains hauling goods barrel through town daily, traveling 70 miles an hour bound both east and west. The oil industry is seeing a big boom in production and more and more traffic on the tracks because of it. With each additional oil car and train that travels along the rail, the threat of an accident of the tracks increases. Thus far, Midland has escaped any dangerous derailments, though neighboring counties have not been as lucky.
Federal Railroad Administration reported that there are been 109 train cars carrying hazardous materials that were involved in accidents in the past 10 years. Also within the last ten years, neighboring Ector County dealt with five train derailments while Howard County to the east saw six instances of accidents, with 54 total train cars involved. Midland reports zero derailments in the last decade.
Some think it’s only a matter of time. If motor traffic in Midland continues to rise as it has been, accidents involving vehicles and trains will increase. Some of the accidents will certainly cause derailments, and its likely that one of those trains could be carrying hazardous materials. Little wants to make sure that if or when it does happen, Midland railroads and emergency responders are ready. “With all the hazard disaster training, we teach that you always have to plan on the worst-case scenario,” Little said. “Anything can happen. When you deal with disaster work, every day you go without a disaster is one day closer to one.”
In Midland, first responders have been undergoing all-hazard training to prepare for such an event. “If they do turn over, first thing they’re going to do is burn. You’ve got that big plume of smoke going someplace,” Little said. “If it’s crude oil, then you can have a gas buildup in one of the tanks and that can make it explode.”
The Midland Fire Department’s Hazmat team has undergone “volatile spillage” training in a course that Little calls the All-Hazard Approach to Emergency Management. If a dangerous accident were to happen, emergency personal are now equipped with the tools they need to help them respond in the most appropriate way. One such tool is a software system that takes into account variables such as wind direction, contents of the train, and humidity, and then estimates how much of a radius needs to be cleared in an evacuation. They an also take advantage of an new app from Union Pacific that users can look up load contents based on the car’s identification number.
A Union Pacific spokesperson, Jeff DeGraff, notes that derailments are uncommon and ones carrying hazardous materials are even less so. “We’ve done a lot in the way of strengthening our infrastructure to prevent derailments, and our derailments have gone down over the last several years,” he said. “We have a wide variety of items that are moving through the area. As far as hazardous materials go, it’s actually a small portion of what we move,” DeGraff said.
But it is always better to be safe than sorry. And now Midland is ready. “If a tank did blow, and we had an explosion on it, then I have no doubt that the fire department could handle it,” Little said. “We’ve got some really good departments around this area.”